Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

On the Ethics of Staying out of Syria

I'm not persuaded that military strikes against Syria are the right course of action.
I'm not persuaded that military strikes against Syria are the right course of action.

I’m not persuaded that military strikes against Syria are the right course of action.

Like many people around the world, I’ve been watching the newswire with a combination of dread and resigned anticipation these last two weeks. It seems we are about to attack Syria, and I am uneasy.

I am uneasy because my beloved president is saying that we need to punish Syria for flouting the Geneva Convention and international law by using chemical weapons on its people. Fair enough, but it seems that in order to do this, the United States will also be flouting international law by attacking a sovereign nation that has not attacked us, and doing so without the support of other nations.  As Time magazine put it,

The fundamental rule of contemporary international law is that states cannot attack other states. The U.N. Charter embodies this rule and makes only two exceptions to it: a state can attack another state if it is authorized to do so by a Security Council resolution, or if the attacking state is acting in genuine self-defense.

Neither of those exceptions applies in this case, so why is the United States proceeding? It’s not like we don’t have two recent and rather disastrous examples of unilateral U.S. military action against nations that have not attacked us (Afghanistan and Iraq). While there is certainly more credible evidence today that Assad used chemical weapons on his people than there was evidence ten years ago that “weapons of mass destruction” were hiding in Iraq, the U.S. is once again rushing in where angels fear to tread.

President Obama and others have cited the example of World War II and Hitler to support their case, saying that it’s important to nip humanitarian abuses in the bud now rather than allow a dictator like Assad to consolidate his power still further and oppress his people. However, I don’t find this a terribly compelling historical parallel. In the late 1930s, Hitler was assiduously spreading his empire throughout Europe — reoccupying the Rhineland, annexing Austria and Czechoslovakia, mobilizing Germany for major warfare, and terrorizing the Jews in all the areas he occupied. In contrast, Syria is not attacking its neighbors but its own people in a vicious, multi-sided civil war.

That civil war is terrible, and thousands of people are dying — not just the 1,400 Syrian citizens who are dead from chemical weapons but tens of thousands more from bullets and bombs. But that still doesn’t make it right or wise for the United States to act unilaterally in policing other nations’ civil wars.

I would not describe myself as an isolationist; I believe there are times when it is morally justifiable for one nation to intervene militarily even when other nations do not join in. In the case of Syria, for example, it is possible that Russia, a longtime ally of the Assad regime(s), has blocked international approval of military action against Syria even though the UN Security Council might have gone forward with it. We do not know. In fact, there is far more that we don’t know than we do know, which is why I see watchful non-intervention as our best option for the moment.

And that’s to say nothing of the way a U.S. attack might further destabilize our relations and reputation abroad while achieving no tangible positive outcomes in Syria. As Max Fisher pointed out recently in the Washington Post,

The military options are all bad. Shipping arms to rebels, even if it helps them topple Assad, would ultimately empower jihadists and worsen rebel in-fighting, probably leading to lots of chaos and possibly a second civil war (the United States made this mistake during Afghanistan’s early 1990s civil war, which helped the Taliban take power in 1996). Taking out Assad somehow would probably do the same, opening up a dangerous power vacuum. Launching airstrikes or a “no-fly zone” could suck us in, possibly for years, and probably wouldn’t make much difference on the ground. An Iraq-style ground invasion would, in the very best outcome, accelerate the killing, cost a lot of U.S. lives, wildly exacerbate anti-Americanism in a boon to jihadists and nationalist dictators alike, and would require the United States to impose order for years across a country full of people trying to kill each other.

Also, there is the domestic question of the state of our own American democracy. In July, former president Jimmy Carter made a comment — largely unreported since then — that “America has no functioning democracy” at present. He was not referring to despotic decisions about military action, but I worry that his criticism is particularly applicable here. There is a reason why that quaint, pesky Constitution of ours requires a vote of Congress to declare war. But presidents from Truman forward have circumvented this provision, making FDR the last president to ever appear before Congress to request a declaration of war. What does it mean for a democracy’s future when a single leader can functionally create a situation of war? How is that democratic, exactly?

When Obama addresses the nation tonight, he’s going to have to persuade me that he’s doing the right thing. As of right now, I just don’t see it, though I could certainly be wrong about this.


About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Thanks for another insightful essay. I agree that there may well be NO GOOD OPTIONS in Syria. It is a difficult situation as are many faced in the world today, especially by whom ever is President of the United States. He, his administration, and the Congress are in my prayers as encouraged by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in the wise counsel they gave us in November of 2012. (See ) I know that inspiration from the Lord can come to the leaders of lands, especially if they genuinely seek it. Having studied The Book of Mormon on war, I have observing that apparently everything from preemptive strikes to total pacifism is justifiable to the Lord under some circumstances. I understand some of the complications in Syria, but certainly NOT all of the details and circumstances. I pray that good judgement will be used and righteous principles will be followed.

  • Regarding the requirement fir a Congressional declaration of war, it’s my understanding that Obama has not asked Congress to declare war, but rather, to authorize a military action. Historically, there is a difference. Congress has formally declared war only 5 times. It has authorized more limited military action 13 times and has funded military action authorized by the UN seven more times (including Korea and Desert Storm). The Constitution only specifies declarations of War, but Congress had historically voted numerous times to authorize military actions that fall short of using “the whole land and naval force of the United States to bring the war to a successful conclusion”.

    This is no doubt off topic in a religion blog, but my own sense is that Congress would be foolish to authorize any military action requested by this or any other so demonstrably incompetent Commander in Chief. In this episode alone he has amply demonstrated lack of understanding of anything military and, in my view, lack of fitness to act as Commander in Chief. Anyone with understanding of such matters would recommending doing exactly the opposite of what he has done of late – pre-announce the attack, pre-announce the targets, and pre-announce the limited scope and the limited duration. Surely Assad with ample time has surrounded every potential target asset with scores of innocent civilians (and with photographers and videographers to document the carnage). Some say Syria must now be struck to preserve US standing in the world, but US standing will only diminish if we step into such a trap of our own design.

    Congress should not authorize such action, no matter how comforting or morally superior it may make them or anyone else feel in the short run.

  • As of September 19, the Obama Administration and Secretary Kerry seem to have fallen into a kind of resolution of the chemical weapons issue, but in all of the statements from the White House, there has been nothing about the moral responsibility of Assad for mass murder of the people who are the citizens for whom he claims to be responsible as leader. I have little doubt that much of the chemical weapon stockpile is even now being hidden (even as some of it came to Syria as a gift from Saddam Hussein), and only a symbolic amount of it will be “discovered” and destroyed. And Assad will get off forever with no accountability for his mass murder because he has made it a non-issue in the context of giving President Obama something he can point to in order to prove that his bluster got results. The proper penalty for a leader who exterminates his own people includes, at a minimum, the forfeiture of all legitimate claim to power, but Assad has avoided that, his only real concern, and in the meantime his fearsome reputation as a merciless foe will be enhanced, with negative consequences for Lebanon and Israel.